A Viet Nam vet, who said his heart was still torn apart,
attended my teaching on Exodus a few years ago.
As he left, he handed me a note that said,
I don’t know if God exists,
but if so, I want it to be the God you spoke of today. . .
Let me tell you about that God.
Biblical Scholars call today’s first lesson
the foundational event for the entire Old Testament.
It is the biggest zinger of a surprise
in all religious literature.
Everything turns on it.
But in order for us to get why,
we need to do a little trick with our minds.
We have to forget everything that happens in the Bible
up to this moment.
Those beautiful and deeply true stories
would not be written until hundreds of years later.
The tales of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
would be written later,
then added back into this story.
So, just for today, forget all that.
Let me tell you another story,
anthropology’s story of religion
before Moses met God on Mt. Horeb.
Stone Age hunter-gatherers had a few primitive rituals
performed out in bear caves.
But formal religion with temples, priests, and sacrifices
began with the agricultural revolution
around 10,000 BC.
At that point, small groups of people began to acquire
more and more land.
To make that land produce,
they needed farmworkers.
That’s when we got forced labor,
kings with taskmasters to keep the slaves in line,
and standing armies to protect royal land claims
from greedy neighbors.
Religion arose as the handmaid of agrarian tyranny.
Religion explained and defended oppression.
The gods and the kings were close friends, even relatives.
Some of the kings, like Pharaoh,
were deemed to be gods themselves.
For poor people, religion meant buying a blessing
with a sacrifice, a tiny bit of which was burned on an altar,
but the rest was kept by the rich folks to sell.
The gods helped the kings keep the poor folk in line.
In all of ancient religion, there was no exception
-- not one – for 8,000 years! –
until that day on Mt. Horeb.
A god Moses did not worship, did not sacrifice to
-- a god he’d never even heard of –
out of nowhere that god spoke to him.
And God said the strangest thing.
God said, I have heard my people’s cry.
I have seen how they suffer under their taskmasters.
Now those people didn’t worship this god either.
They did not sacrifice to, pray to, or believe in this god.
So what made them God’s people?
Just this: they suffered.
All of the other gods of the ancient world
were gods of the rich and powerful.
But this god on Mt. Horeb was the god of the oppressed.
And this God said,
I have heard my people’s cry.
So Moses, go tell Pharaoh, go tell that popinjay poser deity,
to let my people go.
My people. Let them go.
We will hear those words 10 times
in the next seven chapters.
This was a revolution in religion on two counts.
First, we now had a god on the other side of the power system.
Second, up to now, religion wasn’t about morality.
It was about sacrifices to buy blessings
or to ward off misfortune.
Religion was a mix of cosmic graft and celestial protection money.
But here was a god who cared – and cared mightily –
about right and wrong – cared about morality --
and the first morality God cared about was social justice.
This god was moved to act, not by bribery,
but by conscience and compassion.
What had these people done to earn God’s blessing?
Nothing. They just needed God. So God showed up.
God didn’t say,
Moses, go tell the people I have 613 commandments
and if they’ll keep them strictly for three years,
I’ll have a word with Pharaoh.
No, God just set them free.
After they were free,
God gave them the law as a way
to live into their freedom justly together.
The word for that law was halacha
– which literally means the way of life.
I set before you life and death,God said, choose life.
Some of the law was still ancient ritual stuff
they probably got from their neighbors.
But the heart of God’s law was compassion,
mercy for the down and out – the widow, the orphan,
the laborer, the outcast – and most of all the alien.
Do not oppress an alien, God said, for remember that
you were once aliens in Egypt. Exodus 22: 21.
God was saying the way of life is not land acquisition
-- not exploiting the labor of the landless.
-- not marshalling powerful armies
against your weaker neighbor.
Real life is found in simple acts of mercy.
When you harvest your crop, leave some for the poor.
When you hire a worker, pay a fair wage.
Loan to those in need,
and if they cannot pay, forgive the debt.
We cannot imagine how utterly bizarre this religion was
in the Ancient World.
1,300 years later, Jesus did not reverse Moses’s religion.
The kings of Israel had done that when they turned
into the Jewish equivalent of pharaohs.
But Jesus reclaimed it.
Jesus spoke with the same heart as that strange god on Mt. Horeb.
He led his people up a mountainside, a place like the one
where Moses heard God’s voice.
There Jesus blessed the poor.
He blessed the bereaved.
He blessed the hungry.
And he blessed the merciful.
Friends, God has shown us the divine heart
and invites our hearts to beat in sync.
That is our way to life and true happiness.
So, where do we stand this Lent? On Mt. Horeb.
Our God is the one who hears people cry.
Do we hear them?
The top 1 percent in Colorado earn an average $1,260,000 dollars per year.
But one out of eight of our children
live below the poverty line
and one out of eleven do not have enough to eat.
America has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
We lock up far more of our people than countries
we call totalitarian.
Latinos are three times as likely as whites to be incarcerated.
Blacks are six times as likely.
One out of every 10 black men in his thirties is in prison.
This is not about the crime rate.
The crime rate went down,
but the incarceration rate keeps going up.
Others are imprisoned in addiction or domestic abuse.
And we have the alien in our land and at our border
-- the Salvadoran alien, the Honduran alien,
the Syrian and the Sudanese alien.
Brothers and sisters, our feet are on Mt. Horeb.
What do you hear God saying?
I do not hear,
Give up Facebook for a few weeks
and lay off the lattes.
No, God is saying,
I have heard my people cry.
Do you not hear it?
Go tell your American pharaohs
to let my people go.
My people. Let them go.